Michael was our driver and tour guide. A rather large man by Kenyan standards, his English was excellent and he seemed to know just about everything about wildlife. We ultimately chose Eastern and Southern for our safari because they came highly recommended from a friend, were incredibly flexible with our needs, and offered an individualized tour for what we thought was a very reasonable (under $2k for 2 people, 3 parks and 3 nights at top notch game lodges) all-inclusive price. We were not disappointed.
Our first morning was spent navigating the bumpy 5-hour road from Nairobi to Amboseli National Park. Located near the Tanzanian border and in the shadow of Africa's highest mountain (Mt. Kilimanjaro), Amboseli was a vast area of open land with little vegetation. At some points, especially near the entrance, I felt like I was back in the desert of Western Iraq (complete with mirages) until I saw a family of giraffes that would thankfully snap me back to the moment.
We made it to the Amboseli Serena Lodge by lunch and were able to gather ourselves before the afternoon 'game drive.' Especially in the summer, animals tend to find shade and rest during the middle hours of the day, so guides generally take folks out in the early morning and evening.
Before the afternoon outing; however, Michael recommended visiting a local Maasai village. The Maasai are generally unwilling to have their pictures taken, so this would really be the only chance for us to capture on film, not to mention experience, the vibrant colors and fascinating culture of these nomadic peoples. We jumped at the opportunity.
Not far from our lodge, this village had obviously made the conscious decision to become a tourist attraction, charging visitors a nominal fee ($30) to spend an hour or two getting to know them. Benson, who proudly introduced himself as the son of the chief of the village, was our guide. Having been educated at a missionary school in Tanzania, he spoke beautiful English and gave us an hour-long tour of his village. When we entered through one of four gates to the village encircled by a makeshift fence to keep away predators, we were greeted by a line of villagers in the middle open space of the village. Benson explained that all visitors were treated to a traditional song and dance, men on the right and women on the left. At his insistence, we joined in, Lauren chanting and jumping forward hand in hand with a 20-something woman, and me holding a stick as I bent forward in rhythm with the other men.
"We are Christian," explained Benson after the crowd had dispersed to go back to the business of the day. "But we are also polygamists. You are not allowed to choose your first wife but you may choose the 2nd, 3rd, etc."
I wasn't entirely sure how that all worked, but I guess if the Mormons can do it so can the Maasai. The village was divided into four parts, each for one of the four families that lived there. They pretty much only eat goat and cow meat, which probably explains why they were so thin, but the drought had unfortunately killed 120 cows this year so some of their food was subsidized by humanitarian NGOs. During the day the adolescent boys, identified by their black outfits as opposed to the normal vibrant reds and blues and known as the Junior Warriors, would take the communal animals out to graze, returning in the afternoon to put them safely in pens (for the smaller animals) or out in the middle of the village. Sure enough, throughout the course of our visit some of them did return and followed us around, probably unaccustomed to seeing younger muzungus (white people).
Our next stop was to watch the elders play a game I immediately recognized as Mancala, a game I had played in my childhood and a favorite of my cousins in Texas.
"They normally gamble, but this time is just for fun."
Two small stools were brought for us and Benson gave us a rundown of Maasai herbal remedies. There was the tree to cure malaria; boil the branch into a tea, drink, and proceed to vomit for four hours. When you start to see something green, the malaria would be out. No one in his village had ever died from malaria. Then there was the branch, also boiled, for stomach ailments that would give you the runs for four hours after which you'd be cured (and probably a little weak). Lastly, there was the 'Maasai Viagra' used not surprisingly for older men with multiple wives.
"Not for men with one wife," Benson half-joked. "That's considered a punishment for them."
According to Benson, the village had one 'doctor' who had also received an education in Tanzania, and the nearby game lodges assisted with an emergency needs; usually only necessary when some sort of surgery was required.
Despite seeming permanent to us, this village was actually not. These are a nomadic people and periodically they would destroy everything and start over at the base of Kilimanjaro. The mud houses would be taken down and only the most valuable things would be carried by the men and women on their backs to the new location.
Next on the agenda was a fire demonstration. Apparently, elephant dung is full of flammable fibres in addition to a lovely stench, so each morning a small group of men would collect a chunk and start a fire that would then be used by all the women for cooking in their respective domiciles. Holding a circular stick in his hands, one man would rapidly twist it between his hands until the heat from the friction became unbearable. At this point his buddy would take over and the process would continue until, alas, a small spark would light the dung and branches.
"How do you call it? Shit or dung?"
Dung is fine, Benson, there is a lady present, I said, only to be pinched by Lauren. We walked around the small village - around 200 people total lived there - until arriving at Benson's mother's house.
"Watch your head and shoulders," he warned me, "we Maasai aren't as big as you white people."
After winding through a small entryway, we arrived in the living room/dining room, off of which were two holes big enough for two beds. the entire space couldn't have been more than 50 sq ft. and kind of made my small DC apartment look like the Taj Mahal. Generally, the father and mother would sleep in one bed, basically an elevated wooden platform on which were placed overlaid thin leather skins, while the children would sleep in the other bed. At a certain age, the boys would have to leave the house, take a wife, and build a new home. It was a simple place, but apparently adequate for a people that spent almost every waking minute outside. A small fire pit in the middle completed the hut and small holes in the walls and roof served as makeshift chimneys.
Not wanted to be rude and resigning to the fact that we were tourists (*gasp*), we browsed the obligatory assortment of arts and crafts set up by the villagers and obligatorily overpaid for several really neat knickknacks.
"Would you like to see our school?" Benson offered after we had emptied our pockets.
The small schoolhouse was just a few hundred meters from the village and was the only one in the area, serving several groups of children in staggered lessons from the surrounding villages. The building also served as the storage place for rice and other food sacks provided by the World Food Program. The drought this year had affected most Kenyans, and these Maasai were no exceptions, losing many animals due to lack of water and the resulting lack of vegetation. Classes in English and Swahili (the Maasai speak their own, unique tribal language) were combined with basic math and science, offering many of these children the only opportunity they had to learn anything outside traditional Maasai culture. Probably hoping to elicit sympathy (read: donations), the village children duly sat in their chairs for us while the teachers, of which Benson was one, told us about the school. We then signed the guestbook and rejoined Michael out by the car, thanking Benson for his hospitality and Michael for bringing us.
We hadn't even been on a single game drive and the safari had already exceeded all of my expectations.
That evening, after a stunning sunset at the tail end of our game drive, Lauren and I plopped down on the patio at the lodge to enjoy a cold bottle of Tusker (a Kenyan lager) before dinner. As we chatted about the eventful day, including the sighting of two sleepy mating lions, an elephant decided to join us. Marching up the slope in the methodic steps less than 50 meters from us, the gentle giant seemed not to care or notice that a lodge full of people were gaping at her, no doubt wondering, like I was, on what planet they had landed.
On a scale of 1 to 5 - 1 being 'meh'and 5 being 'fantabulous,' Amboseli and the Serena Amboseli rates as follows:
Room amenities: 5
View from restaurant: 2
Staff: 5 (including several Maasai hosts to answer any questions)
Animals in park: 5 (known for big game, we saw many many many many animals in Amboseli)
Scenery in park: 2 (flat, semi-desert in places, good for seeing animals but boring for the most part - good views of Mt. Kilimanjaro if the clouds cooperate)
Overall lodge quality: 5 (top notch food, rooms, service and amenities)